OUR THINKING FALLS into roughly two categories. In the first, we think the world is a pretty great place. If that is you, we need you. We need you to spread the message to those of us who don’t know it yet.
In the other category, we think the world isn’t all that great, to say the least. If that is you, I want to talk to you.
I want to talk to you because you can make the world better today by doing this one simple thing: Notice the good around you. Say what? Hang in there, I promise this will make sense.
First, let me give you some numbers that may surprise you. Bear in mind that of the seven and a half billion people in the world, we'll be talking about the approximately 4bn that are in the adult range. The World Giving Index reports that in 2015 one billion people volunteered their time. A staggering 1.4bn people gave to charity and, at 2.2bn, more than half the world’s adults helped out a stranger. That’s quite the picture of altruism.
Now add that, as Index Mundi—an organization that crunches numbers it gets from the American CIA—reports, 90% of the world’s drinking water sources have improved over the last decade and so has 60% of the world’s sanitation. There is great urgency to do more. At the same time, these are numbers we can feel good about.
Studies have shown that our environment is socially contagious. This is how, as I wrote at the beginning, you will make the world better when you notice the good around you. When you do, you naturally pay it forward. You’ve heard the phrase, “She had an infectious smile.” Goodness, like an infectious smile, is socially contagious. You become infected and, in turn, infect others. Thus, you become the source of a positive ripple effect that sets off other ripple effects.
But first, you have to give it your attention. Considering that half of all adults are doing something nice every day, this isn’t hard.
There is more.
How we think about the world affects the world, as well. Here is an example. Have you ever heard it said that people are self-interested? That even altruism is ultimately self-interest because we help others to lessen our own distress? This notion is very much part of the zeitgeist. Yet, it is an invention.
It goes back to Hobbes. Not Hobbs of Calvin and Hobbs fame but Thomas Hobbes, the English 17th Century political philosopher. That was his opinion. He said that when he gave money to a beggar, it wasn’t out of altruism but because he wanted to reduce his own distress. He wrote so persuasively that his contemporaries adopted as fact that we are only motivated by self-interest. Any environment is socially contagious—400 years later, long after the general public has forgotten where it came from, we still believe it.
Recent research shows Hobbes was dead wrong.
It’s understandable that he believed as he did. His perception of human nature was shaped by the English Civil War and the Thirty Year War. With his mental prowess (he wrote Leviathan, a bestseller in 1651) and the force of his personality, he caused society to adopt the belief that we are selfish brutes. There is a feedback loop at work here. Our environment affects us, we, in turn affect our environment. In this sense, the world we have today was, in part, created by his misperception of human nature.
An experiment at the University of Kansas identified how altruism works. There is a great paper here. Briefly put, participants were confronted with a person in dire need of assistance. However, they were given an out—they were assured someone else would step in if they didn’t want to help.
Here is where it gets interesting. Of the subjects who reported feeling distress over the person who needed their help, 67% opted out of helping. Of the subjects who reported feeling empathy, how many do you think opted out? 17%.
The next time someone says you do good deeds just to make yourself feel better, you know the real truth.
Instead of being influenced by Hobbes and the media’s disproportionate negative reporting, let's let ourselves be influenced by the good in the world.
The World Giving Index, beyond a shadow of a doubt, shows us to be quite wonderful. Fortified by the knowledge of our empathy-based altruism, we can leave Hobbes behind.
In the beginning, I wrote that if you already think the world is an amazing place, we need you to spread that message. I hope this post inspires you to start many a ripple effect that initiates countless other ripple effects by sharing that thinking.
If you didn’t think so before, I hope this article inspires you to break with the idea that we are motivated by self-interest and to see sources that advance this notion, like some of the media, for instance, for what it is—a delivery system of disproportionately bad news. Join us and begin to take note when the world around you shows you its good side. Remember, you are someone else’s environment. You can start your own ripple effect. Make the world even better than it is.